Your child­hood neigh­bor­hood could af­fect you on an epi­ge­netic level: Study

Iran Daily - - Science & Technology - By He­len Fisher & Aaron Reuben*

Nu­mer­ous stud­ies have shown that chil­dren who grow up in more de­prived neigh­bor­hoods tend to have worse phys­i­cal health as adults com­pared to those raised in more af­flu­ent ar­eas.

This is the case even when re­searchers take into ac­count fam­ily in­come and ed­u­ca­tion, and whether or not par­ents have ma­jor ill­nesses.

In or­der to ad­dress this health dis­par­ity, re­searchers need to un­der­stand how those liv­ing in dis­ad­van­taged neigh­bor­hoods end up with worse health out­comes.

Our team’s lat­est study has high­lighted one po­ten­tial way your child­hood neigh­bor­hood may in­flu­ence your health for years to come. It might do so through chang­ing how the ac­tiv­ity of your genes is reg­u­lated.

Gene reg­u­la­tion or “epi­ge­net­ics” is the process of turn­ing on or off genes. It’s an im­por­tant part of how our bod­ies de­velop over time.

For in­stance, a cer­tain group of genes are turned on to in­crease hor­mone pro­duc­tion dur­ing pu­berty. We call the set of ways that your genes are reg­u­lated your “epigenome”.

We found that chil­dren who were raised in com­mu­ni­ties marked by more eco­nomic de­pri­va­tion, phys­i­cal di­lap­i­da­tion, so­cial dis­con­nec­tion and dan­ger, dis­played dif­fer­ences from their peers in their epigenomes.

This was in com­par­i­son to those who grew up in well-off neigh­bor­hoods, which had cleaner air and were more so­cially con­nected, safe and well looked af­ter.

The epigenome is made up of pro­teins and chem­i­cal com­pounds that can change the ac­tiv­ity of our genes by at­tach­ing to seg­ments of our DNA.

This doesn’t al­ter the DNA se­quence but in­stead in­flu­ences how our genes work. It can turn on a gene so it pro­duces cer­tain pro­teins, or turn it off so it doesn’t.

These pro­teins play a crit­i­cal role in our bod­ies and are re­quired for the struc­ture, func­tion and reg­u­la­tion of our tis­sues and or­gans. Ac­ti­vat­ing genes that were dor­mant can some­times have dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects.

For ex­am­ple, this can al­low a can­cer­ous tu­mor to grow. But turn­ing off genes can also in­ter­fere with nor­mal de­vel­op­ment, such as pre­vent­ing bones from grow­ing.

For our study, we looked at the epigenomes of around 2,000 chil­dren born in Eng­land and Wales be­tween 1994 and 1995, who we have been fol­low­ing over the past two decades. They grew up in neigh­bor­hoods rep­re­sent­ing the full spec­trum of so­cioe­co­nomic con­di­tions in the wider UK.

We used di­verse data sources to char­ac­ter­ize the phys­i­cal, so­cial, eco­nomic, and health and safety char­ac­ter­is­tics of these neigh­bor­hoods.

These sources in­cluded lo­cal gov­ern­ment and crim­i­nal jus­tice data­bases, sys­tem­atic ob­ser­va­tions of images from Google Street View, and sur­veys with other res­i­dents.

This in­for­ma­tion was then com­pared with epi­ge­netic data de­rived from blood sam­ples that study mem­bers pro­vided when they were 18. This is well be­fore most peo­ple de­velop life-lim­it­ing health con­di­tions such as car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease or type 2 di­a­betes.

We found that in chil­dren who grew up in more dis­ad­van­taged neigh­bor­hoods, there were al­ready dif­fer­ences in the reg­u­la­tion of genes pre­vi­ously linked with chronic in­flam­ma­tion and the de­vel­op­ment of lung can­cer, and with ex­po­sure to cig­a­rette smoke and out­door air pol­lu­tion.

This was the case even in those par­tic­i­pants who didn’t smoke or ac­tu­ally have high lev­els of in­flam­ma­tion, both of which are known risk fac­tors for heart dis­ease, type 2 di­a­betes and can­cer.

* He­len Fisher is a reader in de­vel­op­men­tal psy­chopathol­ogy at King’s Col­lege London. Aaron Reuben is a PH.D. can­di­date in clin­i­cal psy­chol­ogy at Duke Univer­sity in the US. This ar­ti­cle is re­pub­lished from the­con­ver­sa­ Read the full ar­ti­cle on: www.irandai­ly­on­


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